All in: Economic Sunk Costs and Republican Support for Trump

As the impeachment trial gets underway in the Senate can we agree that facts don’t matter?

Impeachment by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Over the coming days the opening statements in the impeachment proceedings will lay out each side’s respective cases. Facts and details will be countered with sophistry and obfuscation. But when it comes to speculation over Senate Republicans and what it would take for them to actually act, can we stop pretending that evidence has anything to do with it? Republicans are all in on Trump, and having already doubled, tripled and quadrupled down they aren’t going to change their minds. The reason?

Three years into the Trump Presidency, if you’re a Republican and you’re still standing by your man, you’ve already incurred any negative cost for your support.

It’s hard to imagine what it would take at this point for Republicans to cut their losses. They’ve already signaled their willingness to tolerate foreign meddling in American elections: they shrugged rather than defend democracy over the threat of Russian interference, and they seem equally unwilling to hold Trump accountable for attempting to extort Ukraine into providing dirt on a likely opponent. Prior to 2016 national security seemed to be their line in the sand, and yet they have had no problem with Trump sharing classified information with Russia, granting security clearances to his children, or throwing over Kurdish Allies and allowing Turkey carte blanche to run bombing sorties. Even terrorism, the mantle in which Republicans cloaked themselves under Bush, has been unable to budge them: Trump’s reckless withdrawl from Northern Syria has resulted in ISIS fighters being released back into the region and while it raised some squawks, no Republicans dared confront him in any significant way. The more invested Republicans become and the further Trump pulls them from their previous moral limits, the harder it is for them to peel away.

Countering economic sunk costs generally requires a that we keep sight of the big picture, account accurately for the costs we pay and focus on facts. None of these seem likely in today’s political climate. The problem is that for Republicans, the big picture is terrible. Demographic change means Republicans face an uncertain future: their current hold on power is based largely on gerrymandering that likely will not survive the next census. In the 2016 election, gerrymandering helped Republicans gain seats despite Democrats having millions more ballots cast for them. Trump is their last best hope for the Presidency, and for that reason, it seems unlikely that Republicans will suddenly change their calculus.

Second, the media silo of news and facts means that two of the most effective tools to counter the economic sunk costs fallacy are unlikely be brought to bear. Instead of considering the gulf between the reality of where Trump has brought them and democratic principles, Republicans can retreat into a cocoon of conservative media voices that reinforce their world view. Many seem comfortable trading democratic ideas for a Supreme Court judges and tax cuts. So there is no cognitive dissonance to gnaw at them, and no accounting of the facts to cause them to question the cost of continuing to support the President.

Where does this leave us? Recently, Senate Republicans did show some signs of equivocation. Recognizing that impeachment could put Senators facing tough re-election campaigns in a predicament, they voted to relax the rules to allow three rather than two days for testimony out of fear that if the process appeared too illegitimate voters might punish them. But it’s unlikely these concerns will be enough for Senate Republicans to turn on their President. That means they are all in until they are suddenly all out — and that’s likelier to be the result of the voters than a change of heart.

I write about economics and technology. My views are my own.

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